Making The Skies A Little Friendlier

Disclosure: I have no business relationship with the two online services that I endorse in this post.  I am endorsing them based on my experience with their products.   One provides their service free of charge, the other charges a one-time fee.  My endorsement is purely voluntary.

Airliner with Boy. Photo: Source Unknown

Flying Ain’t What it Used to Be

The days of flying as an experience that was both elegant and comfortable are gone forever.  It was losing ground for the past twenty-five years or so, but after 9/11, and the subsequent changes for security that have been imposed, the pretense of flying commercially as a fun way to travel was abandoned.  Flying has, in one respect, become a metaphor for our society’s changes as well.  The “Haves” who can afford to fly first class or business class, are treated with some semblance of the old days.  The rest of us get to fly in the section euphemistically termed “coach,” but which I simply call the “trash-compactor” area.

The purpose of this post is not to rant about the decline in service or the dismal state of airline passenger quality or comfort.  I want to discuss two applications, one for so-called smart phones and the other a website. These two applications are a little ray of sunshine in an otherwise dismal sky.

Flight Track by Mobiata

Flight Track Icon. Image Courtesy of Mobiata/Flight Track

Over the course of the past two months, my wife and I flew several times (unfortunately never together) for business or educational purposes.  I have a Motorola Droid and was looking for an application (app for short) that would allow me to keep track of the airplanes in which we would be flying, and to be alerted to changes in flight status, delays, gate changes, etc.  After perusing all the flight tracking apps available for the Droid, I decided to purchase Flight Track (FT).  It was rated 4.5 stars by other users.  The app has been downloaded in the 10K-50K category and has received nearly 600 comments.  The developer of the app is Mobiata.  The price for the app is$4.99 USD. The main features are:

  • Easy entry of Airline and flight number.
  • Correcting and deleting flights is also easy
  • Live flight status and gate info
  • Home screen widget with latest flight status
  • Live flight tracker maps (can overlay Google maps for a more realistic view). The maps can be zoomed in or out, and also panned.
  • The aircraft’s position is fairly accurate, not quite real time, but close. (I suspect this will get better over time)
  • During flight, the aircraft’s speed and altitude are displayed as well as the time elapsed since takeoff.
  • Arrival status and gate information that is automatically updated during the flight.  Or (like I experienced in September 2010 during my layover at KSFO), the airline changed both the aircraft and the gate, necessitating my having to move to a completely different concourse.
  • An upgrade is available to import data from TripIt.
  • FT is available for basically all smart phones OS: Android, Blackberry, Palm,  iPhone, and iPad.

Additional features I liked were: FT will run in the background and notify you of  status changes even though you are working on something else.  It updates itself the moment you turn on your phone after landing.  You can activate FT the night before you take off and it will notify you of the flight’s status and any changes that have been made prior to the flight.  If you live in a large city and have an international airport this can be a valuable notice to receive, especially if the flight’s gate or boarding time is changed.  My one criticism, which is common to numerous apps, is that it sucks up a lot of battery juice when you are running it in the background.  On the other hand, getting notice of changes between your arrival and departure can be very helpful. It rarely causes a Force Close, which I rate as an app that plays well with others.

I rated Flight Track with  5 stars after using it for three trips.

Douglas DC-3A N25673 Built 1940 Continental Airlines. The Grand Dame of Airline Travel. Photo Courtesy: FlightAware & ebdon

FlightAware: Live Flight Tracking

When travel by air began to become affordable for the average citizen, the Douglas DC-3 was one of the main reasons for that transformation.  Durable, relatively inexpensive to maintain, a sturdy air frame and easy to fly, were among its attributes, although its passenger capacity was limited to between 21-32 occupants.  Nevertheless, it had a pressurized cabin, cruised at 150 mph with a service ceiling of 25,000 feet, and a range just over a thousand miles. For more information on the DC-3 and its illustrious career, click here.

FlightAware Logo

I discovered FlightAware through the great weather site, Weather Underground. (Please note that I use a Wunderground widget for my blog.  Thanks, Jeff!)   I’ve had a subscription with them for years and rely on their forecasts, as well as an ever-expanding range of services (like what the weather is going to be for the next NASCAR race, and the link to the race site so you can keep tabs on the weather radar during the race  This is important stuff. Go #18!).  And since Wunderground’s author is Dr. Jeff Masters, who in a previous life flew on the hurricane hunter aircraft, Jeff has been consistently adding new aviation-related services to the site.  When he added FlightAware, I knew it would be a very reliable source for information.

How things have changed in the airline industry since the DC-3 was the queen of the skies!  And FlightAware is one of those changes.  Unlike Flight Tracker above, FlightAware is designed to provide a wide range of online services for both the passenger and pilot (private, commercial or military).  Their basic offerings are free, but one can register without cost for another tier of services   For the occasional flier, one can enter your flight numbers and airports into FlightAware, and its aircraft tracking feature will show you, pretty close to real time where the plane is along its route.  Here’s a short list of the services they offer:

  • Live Tracking (by several different categories, plus helps if you don’t have all the flight info at your fingertips).
  • Flight Planning: a wide range of services designed to assist the private pilot
  • Pilot Resources: IFR route searches, weather maps, mobile METAR/TAF info
  • Photos: Thousands of photos from people around the world.  Many are professional or near professional quality.  If you like planes and want to look at pictures in just about every imaginable context, you will love this!  I did.
  • Sqauwks and Headlines:  A place to sound off and also get the latest news on the flight-related industry
  • Discussion:  This is not your typical blog reaction site.  This page offers announcements, as well as places to respond organized into categories.  Now that’s a pleasant discovery.
  • Commercial Services:  Here you’ll find the business connection for FlightAware and the many services they offer.
  • About FlightAware: Provides some history and background on the company:

Founded in March of 2005, FlightAware was the first company to offer free flight tracking services for both private and commercial air traffic in the United States. FlightAware launched public operations in late 2005 and quickly became the most popular flight tracking service in the world.

FlightAware’s proprietary flight arrival time algorithms combined with FlightAware’s powerful, intuitive, responsive, and reliable web-based interface yield the most capable and useful flight tracking application and service. FlightAware has offices in Houston and New York.

I’m waiting for is FlightAware to add the Android OS.  That way I could have both Flight Tracker and FlightAware available any time I might need them.  So, Dan Davis (CEO) and Matt Baker (VP Aviation Marketing) I’m thinking it’s time you sat down over a cup of coffee and planned out how to get your software developers on the stick to put out versions for Android, Blackberry and Palm.  Oh and don’t forget about iPad, too.

Time for Wheels Up

I’ve got two great products here.  And though they are similar in some of their services, they are distinct enough from each other that I found using the two together was even better.  I give Flight Tracker and FlightAware two thumbs up and both are well worth your time to check them out.  The days of luxurious and elegant flying are gone forever.  These two apps, however, help take some of the stress out of flying.  And for me, that’s saying something significant!

The well-prepared pilot never leaves anything to chance for a successful flight. Photo Courtesy: FlightAware & hottubpoet

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